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Release: Sept. 21, 2001

Yager diversity award honors Des Moines, Cedar Rapids teachers

A Des Moines and a Cedar Rapids teacher are the first recipients of the Phyllis A.Yager Commitment to Diversity Award, established this year by a longtime University of Iowa science education professor in honor of his late wife's commitment to diversity.

Ruth Ann Gaines, a drama teacher at East High School in Des Moines, and Ruth White, Ph.D., who teaches humanities and Advanced Placement English at Washington High School in Cedar Rapids, will be given the award during a special ceremony 4 p.m. Friday, Sept. 21 in Macbride Hall. The college will also recognize four finalists for the award: Kathy Webb Wikert, a part-time elementary language arts teacher at Willowbrook Elementary and junior high school talented/gifted teacher in Altoona; Judy Schmidt and Darlene O'Neill, both language arts teachers at Hempstead Senior High School in Dubuque; and Susan Johnson, a guidance counselor at Cedar Falls High School.

The Phyllis A. Yager Award is intended to recognize Iowa teachers' contributions to diversity awareness within their school systems. It was established in honor of UI College of Education Professor Robert Yager's late wife, who devoted her career to advocating multicultural opportunities and gender-affirming activities through her work as a teacher in the Iowa City School District and later as a consultant to the Grant Wood Area Education Agency.

"The whole family's really excited about this because it's fulfilling what Phyllis spent her life doing," Robert Yager said. "She loved people and hated discrimination, and she was always looking for ways to make life better for all people."

He said the timing of the award is particularly poignant in light of the recent terrorist attacks in Washington and New York, which he said illustrate the problems of intolerance and misunderstanding in the world. In addition to teaching, he said, schools "should also promote a better kind of society." And he hopes the award helps them accomplish that.

The award, which carries with it a $1,000 stipend to be used for further diversity initiatives or for professional development, is funded through the Phyllis Yager Memorial Education Fund, which was established by Mrs. Yager's family when she died in 1991. Winners are asked to make a presentation to the College of Education community discussing their initiatives and successes in increasing diversity awareness, to participate in the year’s College Diversity Committee meetings and activities, and to play a role in selecting future award winners.

Gaines, a drama teacher at Des Moines' East High since 1971, has done "magnificent work helping students understand, confront and undermine the many overt and insidious manifestations of racism in American society," according to the award committee. Jerry Stillwell, East High's principal and the person who nominated Gaines, said that soon after racial unrest developed at East High, Gaines became "an instrumental player in creating mechanisms which led to solutions of immediate problems, as well as structures to cultivate long term racial understanding and harmony." Working with staff and students, he said, Gaines developed seminars to open continuing dialogue among students to foster understanding and healing.

Out of these seminars, Gaines helped a multi-ethnic group of students form the Student Leadership Council at East High -- a group that continues to serve as a voice for diversity issues. The Student Leadership Group has also become a training ground for the development of student leaders on diversity concerns and helped form a student performance group called "Voices of Change," which is guided by Gaines.

Washington High's principal, Ralph Plagman, called his nominee, White, "an indefatigable learner." White, who holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Iowa, has been an English teacher and academic advisor to minority students at Washington High School for 19 years and a teacher in the Cedar Rapids School District for 28. Among other things she is the sponsor for the Cultural Diversity Organization at her school, which is now one of its largest and most active organizations.

As a teacher of Advanced Placement courses, she became concerned by the under-representation of students of color in these classes. To address this problem, she developed and implemented a program called TAP (Toward Advanced Placement). This program offers a course aimed at enhancing the skills and self concept of students of color so that more students will eventually enroll in Advanced Placement classes. She also succeeded in getting school board approval for a course in African American Culture that fulfills a portion of the U.S. history requirement. She designed this course to include literature, music, and art in keeping with her belief that understanding the culture of a people provides students with more insight than simply learning their history.

Wrote one student about White, "I want you to know that I consider you one of the greatest teachers on the planet as well as one of the nicest people. You made me proud to be black and instilled in me a fierce determination to succeed."

Friday's recognition ceremony is part of a half-day celebration sponsored by the UI College of Education's Diversity Committee to showcase research by education faculty, staff and students.

James Anderson, a University of Illinois professor who specializes in the history of American education, the history of African-American education, and race in American life and culture, will be the guest speaker for the event, which begins at 12:30 p.m. in Jones Commons, Room N300 of North Lindquist Center.

Here is the schedule of events, all of which are open to the public.

12:30 p.m. -- Welcome and Introductions (Jones Commons, N300, North Lindquist Center)
12:45 p.m. -- Iowa Classroom Teachers Panel: The Importance of Diversity in Iowa's Classrooms (Jones Commons, N300, North Lindquist Center)
1:45 p.m. -- Research Presentations: Session 1 (various locations in the Lindquist Center)
2:45 p.m. -- Research Presentations: Session 2 (various locations in the Lindquist Center)
4 p.m. -- Recognition Ceremony (Macbride Hall)
5:30 to 6:30 p.m. -- Reception (Iowa Hall)